The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Too few D.C. students finish college. This program aims to change that.

An early college program at Coolidge High School could be a model for the rest of the city, leaders said

Students in the inaugural class of Coolidge High School’s Early College Academy cheer on their peers during a recognition ceremony on Thursday. (Lauren Lumpkin/The Washington Post)
6 min

The three dozen students buzzed in their seats. For the morning, they swapped their usual outfits of sneakers and jeans for heels and neckties.

Their graduation is not for another three months, but on Thursday a group of Coolidge High School students got an early taste of the finish line. For the past four years, they have racked up credits at both Coolidge and Trinity Washington University, an experiment by D.C. public schools to send more of its students to college.

Student speakers reflected on the hours of studying, sacrificing time with friends to master math concepts. Their professors commended their maturity and professionalism.

And when it seemed the morning couldn’t get better — even the sun was out after several days of cold and windy mornings — Sita Ramamurti, dean of Trinity’s college of arts and sciences, dropped a bombshell: “Each and every one of you has been officially accepted into Trinity’s bachelor’s degree program,” she announced. And to sweeten the deal: up to $51,000 in scholarships per student over three years. The audience erupted into cheers; parents wept.

These teens are part of the inaugural class of Coolidge’s Early College Academy, an effort to reverse the trend of lackluster college enrollment rates in D.C. The Northwest Washington school was selected to launch the program in part because of its diverse student population, said Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of D.C. public schools, including many students for whom English is not their first language. Three more cohorts are scheduled and expected to finish by the 2025-2026 school year, a total of 75 additional students.

But amid the applause and happy tears, officials acknowledged more must be done — to not only send more children to college but also make sure they graduate. A recent report from the D.C. Policy Center, a local think tank, found that for every 100 ninth-graders in D.C., just eight will graduate college within six years of leaving high school.

Charting D.C. schools’ road to recovery, from enrollment to retention

Early college programs have been gaining popularity across the country, recently expanding in states such as Texas and Massachusetts. Unlike dual enrollment programs — which allow students to take a handful of college courses and earn credits that can be applied to a degree program after high school — early college students earn a diploma and a degree at the same time.

Officials at Trinity — a small Catholic university with a national reputation for educating low-income and first-generation studentsand D.C. Public Schools spent years dreaming up the Early College Academy, persuading the current cohort to take accelerated classes in ninth and 10th grades when they were still in middle school. At first, there was some wariness. The program was brand new and families didn’t have much information.

“I was a little concerned initially because they had no data, they had no history to go on,” said Rene McCray, 65, whose great-niece, Gabrielle-J’nae Kiser, is part of the program. “A lot of people weren’t certain this could happen.”

Nicole Savage, director of the Early College Academy, admitted the effort started on shaky ground. “We were really building a dream,” she said. Eventually, she gained enough families’ trust to get it off the ground.

Students spent their first two years of high school on Coolidge’s campus. In 11th grade, they transferred to Trinity to take classes that satisfied degree requirements at both schools, including college composition and environmental studies.

“At first, it was stressful,” said Aniya Willacy, 18, adding there were times she seriously considered dropping out. But she also reveled in the independence, the freedom to leave campus when she pleased and manage her own assignments. “They treat you like a college student.”

D.C. Public Schools covered the costs of each student’s associate’s degree, a certification that costs $35,990 at Trinity. Everol Willacy, 69, Aniya’s father, said the program has eliminated a major financial burden for the family. “Being older parents, I think it helped a lot with the cost of going to college,” he said. “It’s going to slice two years off.”

Despite acceptance into Trinity’s bachelor’s program, Aniya, however, is eyeing colleges in Virginia and North Carolina. Gabrielle-J’nae, 17, said she “had a blast” at Trinity, but is also eager to leave D.C.

Parents, however, have their own ideas. Esther Amaya, 39, a D.C. public school teacher who has a daughter in the program, would like her daughter to stay at Trinity “and not have to worry about transferring credits,” she said.

D.C. sees bump in high school grad rates, but absenteeism also rises

D.C. has historically struggled to send its students to college. While graduation rates have steadily improved, fewer students continue their education. About 59 percent of the Class of 2018 enrolled in college within six months of graduating high school, city data shows. That figure dropped to 51 percent for the Class of 2021.

The Early College Academy exists only at Coolidge, but Ferebee said he wants to expand efforts for high-schoolers to earn college credits. “Giving students a jump-start into college and career is something that we hold very high on our priority list because we know it gives students an opportunity to be in the best position to earn a livable wage, to start a career,” Ferebee said. He also touted an effort called DCPS Persists, which was launched in 2020 and offers mentorship, advising and small grants to college students.

Coolidge also offers supports to its college-bound alumni, said Semanthe Bright, the high school’s principal, including virtual check-ins and phone calls, and care packages for alumni in college.

And Trinity has its own team of advisers and academic coaches. But Patricia McGuire, Trinity’s president, said she wants to work with the public school system to better align high school curriculums with what students need to know when they start college. “If a student struggles to read at the collegiate level, she is going to [leave] because she’s frustrated,” she said. “If the student can’t understand the math, it’s the same issue. At the end of the day, we’d like to see that learning occur in the high schools.”

Still, early college programs are a step in the right direction, said Eric Waldo, president and chief executive of the D.C. College Access Program, a nonprofit that helps students go to college.

“So much of this is about building a college-going culture. They, by definition, are letting students know that college … is absolutely achievable and it demystifies the entire thing,” he said. “We have to show them that pathway, that they can do it, they should do it, and there’s money for them to do it.”